Monday 25 May 2020

Dark Eyes Retrovision #22 - Snowpiercer (South Korea/Czech Republic 2013: Dir Bong Hoon Jo)

Is seven years enough to make a film 'retro'? Well it's certainly taken a long time for Bong Hoon Jo's fifth feature to reach Blu Ray and DVD, after its initial rapturous reception both in South Korea and France, the home of the source material. For Snowpiercer started off life as a series of graphic novels, 'Le Transperceniege,' which emerged in 1982 courtesy of writer Jacques Lob - who sadly died in 2002 - and artist Jean-Marc Rochette. The novels had faded from public attention in the intervening years, although French actor/writer director Robert Hossein had expressed an interest in making a film version in the early 1980s.

But unbeknownst to the artist, 'Le Transperceniege' had found its way to the bookshops of South Korea in the early years of the 21st Century, initially as pirated material, and came to the attention of Bong Joon Ho. The director made contact with Rochette and negotiations began for the rights of the film, which eventually started shooting in 2011.

After its initial reception, things went more than a little quiet, however. And the reason? We*nst*in. Apparently the jailed movie mogul's company had acquired the film’s distribution rights for North America, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on initial release, and he had reportedly wanted to trim the movie by 20 minutes, and "a few other things." Bong refused and the rest is history, albeit a tawdry one.

So now Snowpiercer is finally getting a UK release, and, for those who haven't seen it yet, what a mighty film it is. Its story is deceptively simple. In 2031, the entire planet is frozen following a reaction to a chemical response intended to tackle global warming. The last of the world’s only survivors live aboard the Snowpiercer: a train that’s been hurtling around the globe for the past seventeen years. Within the carriages the remnants of the human race have formed their own divisive economic and class system - or it's been formed for them. But revolution is afoot. Curtis (Chris Evans) is the group appointed leader of the underclasses, who unsurprisingly occupy the massive train's rear compartments, with - it is assumed - life improving the nearer one is to the front of the train. Kept in check by armed guards, and reduced to eating energy bars (the ingredients of which turn out to be very disturbing), Curtis's aim is to lead a band of renegades through the train, eventually taking control of the engine and restoring equality and redistribution of resources across all compartments. But as the revolution begins, Curtis's team find out that not everything is as expected. To put it mildly.

Tilda Swinton as Mason in the brilliant Snowpiercer
The creators of the original 'Le Transperceniege' have admitted that their storytelling was an idealised left wing vision. But as Bong has proved in last year's Parasite, class, and the telling of stories about the impact of divisions, is close to his heart. The cleverness of Snowpiercer is its deployment of blockbuster sci fi moves and then gently deconstructing them. This is far closer to the works of Luc Besson and Terry Gilliam (the late John Hurt's character is even named 'Gilliam') in its collection of awkward, idiosyncratic characters mixed up with square jawed action hero Evans, particularly Tilda Swinton whose factotum Mason is equal parts Tory Shire MP and a The League of Gentlemen character. Of course in the seven years that this has been in We*nst*in hell, many of the cast have become much bigger names than they were here: Evans has proved himself in any number of Marvel adaptations, and Octavia Spencer's career (she plays Tanya, a mum estranged from her child) has rocketed.

Snowpiercer looks incredible, is full of enough little ticks and tricks to make you want to rush to see it again; it's violent, darkly humorous, and has an underlying message that is even more necessary to convey today than in the 1980s when the graphic novel first appeared. I so want to see this on the big screen (sigh). But in the meantime we can finally savour its delights in the home environment. OK this isn't a retro film: it's a tomorrow film.

Snowpiercer is available on Blu Ray and DVD from 25th May.

Blu-ray special features:

• Transperceniege: From the Blank Page to the Blank Screen
• Chris Evans and Tilda Swinton on Snowpiercer
• The Birth of Snowpiercer
• The End of the World, and the New Beginning (animated prologue)
• Characters

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